Education Workforce Council

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Cerys Furlong - Lifelong learning in a changing Wales

Cerys FurlongSince our new organization was established last year (following the merger of NIACE and the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion) we have been pleased to see a growing awareness of the need to look holistically at the education and skills needs of our learners and our economy, and the employability programmes we deliver to enable more people to access the labour market.

The context within which education providers, those offering employment support, and employers are currently operating is fast changing. Since the UK’s decision to leave the EU, we have already seen the pound fall in value by 20%, which will have an undoubted impact on people’s living standards. Businesses are, or are likely to be holding back on investment decisions which suggests a slow-down in the economy and a rise in unemployment.

We need to think differently about how our economy is changing, about skills gaps and business’s needs for different types of skills. We cannot rely on overall improvements in economic growth alone to drive major change in prospects for individuals, families and communities in Wales. In confronting these challenges, we need to look both at the immediate future and all its problems, and how individuals and various groups of people cope with these- but also the longer term future and where we want to be in 5,10, 15, 20 years time. While dealing with the short term is vital, without a sense of the longer term challenges we face and ways to confront these, we will always be chasing our tails.

So what are the challenges we face? Well firstly we know that there is a serious demographic challenge. This has been recognized by Welsh Government when it comes to Health, and is reflected in the significant additional funds given to the NHS in the recent draft budget. However, when it comes to education, skills and employment we seem to take less seriously the challenge this ageing population presents.

The truth is Wales is ageing, and we spend too long in retirement. We do not offer older people enough learning opportunities, in fact training at work diminishes rapidly for over 55s. The emphasis on economic purposes in our education and training system ignores the growing need for learning beyond work- now involving unprecedented periods of post- employment time.

There are also lots of changes to our working lives with expectations of our working lifespan increasing in line with life expectancy. The state pension age is set to hit 70 by 2063 on current estimates and exit from employment is now phased- in other words, we now have prolonged and varied economic participation. There has been a shift from full time to part time working patterns, and we now change careers more often (7 is current average number of career changes). There has also been a change in family responsibilities from child to elder (or both), with working adults likely to spend significant amount of time caring for family members. We have seen the increased participation of women in the workforce, through gender segregation when it comes to types of roles remains a factor, and the pay gap between men and women appears stubborn.

When it comes to our workplaces, we are not productive enough- The UK compares badly with other G7 nations, and Wales, like other parts of the UK, has too many people employed on temporary, agency or zero hour contracts. Besides the direct costs to the individual and state of these practices, who ‘owns’ responsibility for the training that these individual works do or don’t receive? When it comes to job vacancies, we have around nine times more replacement jobs in the economy than new ones. This means we need to be focusing on training people we already have in the workplace, and older people too.

For those of us in work, there are challenges also, we have too many people in low pay, and this does not look to be improving fast- for every 4 people in low pay ten years ago, 3 are still in low pay today. By EU definitions, between 22 and 25% of UK jobs are low paid. We also have an unequal workforce: The disability employment gap- which the UK Government has said it wants to halve in this election cycle, does not show much sign of reducing. Our estimates suggest on current progress it will take 200 years to halve the disability employment gap.

Our workplaces also have to confront the challenges of skills utilization and workplace innovation, some estimates suggest around 30% of employers report having at least one employee who was being “under-utilised”. This under-utilisation represents not only a waste of individuals’ talent but also potentially a missed opportunity for employers to increase performance and productivity, improve job satisfaction and employee well-being, and stimulate investment, enterprise and innovation.

And finally, when it comes to learning, the changing financial context for Government means there is less funding for schemes (UK & Wales) which target adults in, or out of work. Co-investment needs to work- to ensure there is the right mix of individual, state and employer contributions to funding for training at different times, and for different people. Its complicated, but currently too few adults participate in learning. We need to work harder to create (or re-create) a sense of lifelong learning as both normal, and something that we (individuals and employers) value and invest in.

So is our current approach working? I have been critical of Welsh Government in the past for lacking a coherent vision for education, skills and employment for adults. These concerns were echoed in the Hazelkorn report and by others. In the past, we have had lots of plans, policies and strategies- but can often be difficult to decipher a coherent vision. However, I do believe this is beginning to change.

The most recent announcements of a new employability policy are welcome, and these will be well-aligned with existing commitments to increase the number of high quality all age apprenticeships and focus on co-investment. But there is of course more to do. We need to recognize that:

Initial education still does not always serve as a good foundation for lifelong learning. Nor can it solve all societies ills, or prepare young people for all the problems of the future. For various reasons, at different times, young people will drop out of our education system and we must find more effectives ways to support them to make the most of their talent and the opportunities we have in Wales. Our initial education system also does nothing to address those who have already left education- which as I have suggested above is necessary to address the changing face of work in Wales. Too many young people still leave school without the basic skills or qualifications that act as a foundation for adult life, and for work. We must also look to families and parents- as co-educators, supporting them to enable their children to achieve their potential. Here the most recent announcements in ‘Taking Wales Forward’ (the programme for Government) to pilot Community Learning Centres which will include a focus on family learning are very welcome.

Transition and progression are not recognized, supported or rewarded enough. We put too much value on qualifications, rather than competancies.The system does not recognize the increasingly diverse transitions into and from employment- and we do not do enough to support our workers with these. From full to part time, and back. From parental or sick leave... to retirement. We over value full time workers in the “prime of their careers”.

Meeting employer needs
We want to match demand and supply of skills, but too often we do it badly. LMI is not always great; lead times are long; Demand shifts; and people are mobile- as are skills from sector to sector. It is also difficult to organize employers collectively, not least to help themselves around skills creation. So we need to support and invest in our Regional Skills Partnerships to enable them to be highly effective in bringing employers and providers together. They have made great strides in a short amount of time, we must support them to develop further.

Learning and Work Institute think that people are our greatest asset and the greatest resource we have in Wales, so its really important that we plan our investment in people more effectively. If we want to boost productivity, get people into better paid and more sustainable jobs that are also stimulating and fulfilling then we all have a responsibility to take lifelong learning and skills seriously.

Cerys Furlong is the Chief Executive of gender equality charity Chwarae Teg and was previously Director of the Learning and Work Institute.